1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Penguin Books). This literary classic chronicles two generations of brothers living in California’s Salinas Valley from the time of the Civil War to the end of World War I. The novel’s packed with Biblical symbolism — you can readily identify the story of Cain and Abel. Although some critics feel the good-and-evil themes are overdone at the expense of characterization and plot, genealogists will enjoy this saga for its family history.
2. Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Ancestry). Written by a professional genealogist skilled in uncovering the tragedies and triumphs of people’s lives, this novel is the culmination of three decades of Southern research. In the author’s own words, “Isle of Canes is a story of multiracial America and its historic struggle to make a place for itself in a world that has insisted one must be either black or white.” She has annotated her tale, which spans more than 150 years and four generations of a Louisiana family, with eight descendancy charts, illustrations and source citations.
3. The Madam by Julianna Baggott (Atria Books). Baggott bases her tale on the lives of her grandmother, who was raised in a house of prostitution, and her great-grandmother, who was the madam there. The story takes place in an industrial town in 1920s West Virginia. When the madam’s husband abandons her and their three children, she decides she can make more and toil less by quitting her factory job and running her own brothel. Although your ancestors might not have made similar choices, this novel reminds us of the lengths some women went to in order to survive and provide for their families.
4. The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (Plume). In her first novel, the author of the best sellers Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels conjures up a fictional family history, tying together two women born centuries apart. The story alternates between the present and the past, detailing the main character’s modern quest for answers about her ancestry, as well as the lives of her French forebears. If you have French Huguenot ancestors, read The Virgin Blue for a glimpse into 16th-century village life.
From the December 2004 issue of Family Tree Magazine.